July – launch date at last

So far the only boating I’ve done the entire year is rowing my little dinghy to harvest some luscious but otherwise inaccessible early blackberries hanging over the water.

This lovely little lapstrake boat, a Roger Oughtred design called a feather pram, is too fragile to want to knock it about on beaches as a yacht tender, so I keep it safe on our pond.

We have at last been able to book a date to put Spring Fever in the water. Most of the jobs we commissioned have been done, apart from some rigging work and a long-overdue gas service. August 18 is now the target date, the latest by a long way that we have ever launched.

The plan with Spring Fever continues to be to cruise up the east coast and base her at Woolverstone on the River Orwell near Ipswich for 6 weeks, before returning to Cowes in early October. That means relearning the short cuts across the sandbanks of the Thames Estuary, called swatchways, which is always an interesting pilotage exercise.

The Thames sandbanks

Nowadays as well as longstanding routes such as the Wallet Spitway, Ray Sand and the several routes across the Sunk sands, we have to learn to negotiate the way through a windfarm. The standard route back from Harwich to Ramsgate goes by a shallow passage called Foulger’s Gat and nowadays that means passing through a huge windfarm, the London Array – all perfectly legal and agreed, and even if we strayed underneath one we would feel the draft but not the rotor itself. They are a minimum 25 metres up, 10 metres higher than our mast.

We had thought of wintering on the east coast but could not find anywhere remotely as economical as Cowes, where we can stay in Shepards Marina from November to March for about £175 a month compared with £360 a month at Woolverstone and similar rates at other Orwell marinas. To think the East Coast used to be regarded as the cheap place to keep a boat….

We’ve applied to have an annual mooring again on Folly Reach on the Medina, having given ours up in January because of the plan to go to Spain and winter there – that was then.

This east coast cruise will be a bit of a nostalgia trip, because at various times over the years with various boats we have had moorings at Woolverstone, Waldringfield, Titchmarsh, Levington, Shotley and Wrabness on the River Stour, where we paid for our own to be laid. For a long time we owned both the mooring at Wrabness and a caravan in a field by the shore, a great place for children to play on the grass, on the beach and in the woods, and a convenient store for boat gear when we weren’t there.

Meanwhile, a designer is about to start laying out the 6th edition of Pass your Yachtmaster. There are many updates throughout the book, some of which have had to be quite long because of the way technology and rules have moved on, plus a whole extra chapter. We’re waiting to find out how many extra cartoons we can insert in the new material, having found some splendidly appropriate ones for the electronic age, even though much of the late Mike Peyton’s work was done before the era of charts on screens. Mike Peyton still makes me laugh because he catches the dilemmas, idiocies, mistakes and obsessions of amateur sailors so well. There are some copyright issues we hope will be sorted soon.

June – tide turning

It looks as if we’ll be free to go cruising on Spring Fever from 4 July, the day the renewed easing of Covid-19 controls starts. While we will not be ready for early July, at least we can now plan a sail, possibly to the Essex and Suffolk rivers.

Pin Mill, near Woolverstone, Suffolk

Following the end of the ban on overnight stays on boats, Cowes, where we are at the moment, has reopened to visiting boats that book a berth in advance.

Weymouth will have a booking system for visiting yachts two weeks ahead with no refunds or cancellations because of weather. Normally, in good summer weather, Weymouth visitors raft out up to 6 deep from the town quay but rafting will be banned to make social distancing easier and reduce visitor numbers. Cowes has adopted the same policy. Further afield, St Mary’s in the Scillies, which we visited last year, has just emailed urging us to visit again, so harbours and marinas seem keen to make up for lost revenue.

In case we go east this year, I checked Ramsgate, where we usually stop, and it is not requiring advance bookings. There are no restrictions other than closing half the showers so users are further apart. Ramsgate usually has plenty of room for visitors , especially if continental yachts on passage cannot show up because of quarantine. Our likeliest destination will be Woolverstone on the River Orwell in Suffolk, where the marina has confirmed that Spring Fever can have a visitor mooring.

There is still work to be done on the boat: three new seacocks have been commissioned and are yet to be finished; we will break the custom of a lifetime and pay someone to antifoul the boat to cut back on our travel to Cowes; and there’s a large amount of gear including sails to get there. Time, however, to think about booking a launch date.

We will still have to be exceptionally careful, because of extra vulnerability at our – umh – rather older than average age. We have even discussed paying someone to bring the boat over to a mainland harbour to avoid having to go on the Isle of Wight ferry in the summer. We can, however, stay in the car when crossing to load the gear, though that’s not much help when leaving for a cruise, because we cannot go by car unless we leave it there for weeks. These are problems we will solve.

At home, the new text for Pass Your Yachtmaster has been delivered to Adlard Coles. Researching it, I am more than ever convinced that it is a mistake to rely completely on electronics for navigation, and that having a portfolio of traditional and modern techniques will always be the sensible approach. I am now reading The Ultimate Navigation Manual by Lyle Brotherton, about land-based techniques, and he makes exactly the same point. The traditional skills involved are far more interesting and sophisticated than I had realised – he teaches desert and mountain navigation to the military among other roles – and he urges people not to over-rely on their GNSS at the expense of their knowledge of other methods.

May – a narrow escape in Venice

Sad news from Venice, where the historic Trabaccolo trading vessel I went to write about for Classic Boat a few years ago has been swamped and damaged by a bad leak. The vessel was saved by the pumps of firefighters who came alongside Il Nuovo Trionfo where she was berthed near the Salute, at the entrance to the Grand Canal. Apparently the boat’s own pumps had failed, though the reasons for the leak in the first place are not clear. The water flooded the engine, and videos show it swilling around at the level of the saloon table top, submerging much equipment.Firefighters alongside with pumps, St Marks Square in the distance

Il Nuovo Trionfo has now been pumped out and towed to a yard for repairs ashore, where she is now. The engine is being stripped down and parts of it soaked in fresh water in the hope that it can be repaired, and the damage is being assessed, according to Il Nuovo Trionfo’s Facebook group. I have lifted these photographs from Facebook, but there’s much more there, including videos (and Facebook translated the texts quite effectively into English).20200526_131307.jpg                                                                  Ashore safely
A Trabaccolo is a sail trading boat which evolved for the northern Adriatic with a flat bottom that can take the ground in the low tides of the lagoons, rather like a Thames barge. Il Nuovo Trionfo had been bought and restored by local enthusiasts, safeguarding a rare nautical treasure, one of very few left. An indication of the design’s seaworthiness is that one has been found in New Caledonia in the Pacific, to which it was sailed after conversion to a yacht, but abandoned after the owner had a heart attack.

The plan for Classic Boat was to write about the Trabaccolo project alongside another in the UK to revive the construction of Thames barges, and to compare and contrast the types of shallow-water trading boat. 

I withdrew from the writing commission in the end because yet another huge problem was found with the Nuovo Trionfo – the tree-sized timber keelson running along inside the boat above the full length external keel was found to have a hidden rotten section, which put her out of action again and required another long round of expensive repairs.

The piece for the magazine would have ended up comparing a successful barge project (at the time) with a sad litany of setbacks on the Venetian restoration, making it seem an odd choice for comparison – perhaps rather negative and upsetting for the Venetians, who had gone to a lot of trouble to show me their project and whose successive misfortunes would be starkly obvious because of the inappropriate juxtaposition.

There were other good reasons for visiting Venice, anyway, so it was far from a wasted journey, especially since I met so many interesting Venetian boat enthusiasts and craftspeople. Like all restorations, the Nuovo Trionfo club was continually  short of money from members and well wishers, and was having trouble raising finance from the Venice local government, which at the time was much more interested in building a replica of a 17th century fast postal galley, at great expense. I wish Il Nuovo Trionfo well.

In easier times, I’d now be packing for this year’s Transadriatica race from Venice to Novigrad and back, on Spiuma, Martin’s boat. At least Easyjet has offered me a refund on my  ticket, having just formally cancelled the flight out next week.


Meanwhile, back home this month Cowes Harbour has given permission for yards to launch boats, but an owner is still not allowed to stay on board overnight. There is at least a day’s work to prepare for launching and another day sorting things out afterwards, so with hotels and AirB&Bs closed, the logistics are difficult. We won’t be doing anything for the moment, but will work out a plan.

The government seems to be hinting at another easing of lockdown soon which could make it simpler. The antics of the Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings in breaking lockdown and not apologising do anyway encorage everyone to think that it is fine to make your own judgments on what’s best to do in grey areas. The ‘don’t stay away from home’ rule does not mention boats, so we could, if we were feeling bloody minded, use the Cummings defence that it’s not specifically banned. (I may be wrong about that, since the RYA and most harbourmasters think it is banned, but there you go….).

However, the real issue is that we want to continue to isolate ourselves, since we are of a certain age and are therefore at greater risk, and that’s what’s holding us back from fitting out and launching for the moment.The other factor is that most ports are still closed to visiting pleasure craft, so  we could not easily carry out our plan to go to the east coast for the rest of the year. For the moment Spring Fever stays where she is.

Meanwhile, the closest I’m coming to sailing is finishing the updates and new material for Pass Your Yachtmaster. I also need to paint the bottom of the little wooden dinghy we row on the pond, the one I built from a kit 6 years ago. I suppose I could also rig a sail with a sheet and a broom handle, though it would take a well cut bedsheet and some nifty short tacking to make ground to windward!Afloat on the pond, at least

Cowes – love it or loathe it?

The man manoeuvring in the queue for the fuel pontoon at Falmouth took one look at our port of registration on the transom, and let loose a flood of abuse about people like us from Cowes. He was accusing us of queue jumping – we weren’t. Elsewhere, another sailor looked at the town name and added “arrogant bastards” to his complaint about where we were parked on a pontoon.

 I may well be getting paranoid, but since moving our sailing base to Cowes 5 years ago I’ve been wondering whether the mere name sometimes prompts the sailing equivalent of the “posh boy” jibe at David Cameron’s cabinet. In distant parts of the British Isles I’ve caught myself apologising for the name Cowes on the transom. Not any more.

Having spent many seasons based on the East Coast (and quite a few in the West Country and Scotland) I was not expecting to move to Cowes. I’d seen the sailing clubs lined up like a John Cleese sketch along the shore (the Squadron looking down on the Royal Corinthian and Royal London, those two looking down on the Island Sailing Club and all of them looking down on the Cowes Corinthian up the river). There’s also the great weight of tradition, the royal connections, the classic pictures of Edwardian ultra rich racing their J-Class yachts, the monied party atmosphere of Cowes weeks, the boats sponsored by City firms – all of that and much more.

We happened to find and buy our latest boat in Cowes, and organised a temporary mooring there while we thought about where to base her: back to the east coast or somewhere on the south coast for a change. One day we had a friendly call from the harbourmaster asking whether we’d like a permanent pontoon mooring, because the boat and its previous owner were well known to him, they had been there a long time, and we’d be very welcome to stay on. The bigger surprise was in the price: less than we would be paying for a swinging mooring in a bleak and exposed position outside the not very friendly Suffolk Yacht Harbour on the River Orwell, where we’d kept a previous boat. So we stayed.

Cowes, despite its cliché tag as the Mecca of Sailing, is not in fact expensive. This must have much to do with being on an island, which adds to travel costs and time. The Meccas now for most of the year are the Hamble and Lymington. If you don’t do rushed weekend sailing, and mainly cruise away from home, the extra hour each way and the expense of the ferry to Cowes are less important.

Furthermore, we have never been anywhere in the last 30 years with so many excellent marine service businesses available, from stainless steel fabrication to electronics and general shipwright work. My impression is that they are significantly cheaper than the same services on the Orwell. They’re also improving the outer harbour at this moment, with a massive new breakwater for protection from the North-Easterly gales to which Cowes has until now been exposed.

And what about the posh boy jibe? Well, we haven’t tried to join the Royal Yacht Squadron (we’re not admirals, posh or super rich) but the co-owner has joined one of the other clubs and found it pleasant and hospitable. If you don’t want to join a local club or try to get into smart Cowes Week parties, it’s still a great and surprisingly economical place to base a cruising boat.